Right now, across the globe, almost 200 companies are working on electrically powered, vertical take-off and landing (e-vtol) flying machines. They range from inventors with rendered images seeking angel investors, to major aerospace manufacturers developing concepts and service models to address both the opportunity and the threat of the new urban air mobility market. Behind this activity are bold claims about the future for the market, with Morgan Stanley putting the potential market size at $1.5trillion by 2039. This market—urban air mobility—is all about the use of flying vehicles to transport people into, out of, and across a city, usually as an integrated part of the ground-based transport service. The concept itself is nothing new. The invention of the helicopter generated the first round of hype in urban air mobility, opening up for the first time the potential to fly into the heart of an urban area. In the 1960s you could take a helicopter from the top of the Pan Am skyscraper to any of the city’s airports, with 48 flights a day and a trip costing no more than $6 ($43 at 2019 prices). Today, in many of today’s megacities including Sao Paulo, New Delhi, and New York, helicopters are still being used to circumnavigate the gridlock on the ground, albeit now enhanced by the technology offered by transport apps such as Uber.
The exponential increase in investment into urban air mobility has been driven by three key factors. Firstly, the increasing urbanization of our societies (expected to be 68 percent of the world’s population by 2050 according to the UN) is leading to ever-increasing congestion and pollution in our cities. Secondly, the incredible advances in computing processing power and the advent of ‘the cloud’ have unlocked the potential of artificial intelligence to enable much more complex and integrated transportation service models. And thirdly, advances in distributed electrical propulsion, battery capacity, and highly automated flight controls are enabling a new breed of aircrafts that can take off vertically like a helicopter and fly horizontally like a plane using cheap, clean, and quiet electric propulsion—with all of the complexity of flight dynamics handled by the automated control systems. So, the problem statement is powerful and the potential solution compelling. Added to that, some of the simpler e-vtol aircrafts are reaching maturity, with demonstration flights already being carried out—notably, by Volocopter that have flown in Dubai, Stuttgart, and at Helsinki airport.